Here’s this month’s poetry post from our friend Keiji Minato.
Ikkyu Sojun (一休宗純; 1394-1481) is one of the most famous monks in the history of Japan. Since his lifetime countless legends have been told about his weird acts and unmatchable wits. For contemporary Japanese he has become the most familiar figure as a Buddhist monk through the television anime series Ikkyu-san (一休さん; originally broadcast between 1975 and 1982, but re-broadcast many times after that). In this still popular anime, the protagonist Ikkyu-san is a boy who is kind and bright, helping people around him with his tonchi (the ability to solve difficult questions in original ways) and outfoxing Shogun-sama, who is always trying to trick him for fun.
The image of Ikkyu Sojun in the real history was difficult to grasp, but he might not be such a likable person as depicted in the anime. It is said that he urinated on a newly built Buddhist statue which he had been asked to consecrate and on another occasion took a nap using a statue as his pillow. (In the latter case a legend says that his friend Ren’nyo-shonin, another famous monk, came back to find Ikkyu sleeping and said, “Don’t use the tool for my trade as a pillow,” and they both had a good laugh over it.) His criticism of other monks often went beyond extreme or sounded just like blunt slandering, but in his last days he became head-monk of Daitoku-ji (大徳寺), one of the biggest Zen temples at that time and also today.
Kyounshu(狂雲集) is a collection of his Chinese-style poetry first published in 1642, well after his death (Kyo’un is one of the pseudonyms Ikkyu used, meaning a “crazy(狂) cloud(雲)”), and his image is multi-faceted even in this one book. He once stayed at Nyoian (如意庵) in Daitoku-ji to commemorate the thirteenth year of his master Kasou (華臾)’s death. Ten days after the ceremony he put the following poem on the wall of the building and went away:
At leaving Nyoian, sending this to Youyu-osho,
Living in this hut for ten days made my mind fidgety
to my legs long red strings of the world get tangled
if some day you come visit me
go to a fish dealer, a tavern, or a brothel
Yosou (養臾) is his senior fellow, who succeeded their master Kasou and became head-monk of Diatoku-ji. It is clear that Ikkyu disliked him; he even said that Yosou’s claim as Kasou’s successor was false and severely criticized his rather successful managing of their sect as fawning upon the authorities.
At eighty this poor monk is such a rogue
during playing at a brothel thinks of a boy’s love
half sober, half asleep, drunk under the blossoms
In Rinzai or Tokuzan who got real enlightenment?
* Rinzai and Tokuzan stand for the biggest Zen Buddhist sects at that time.
There must be some exaggerations, but Ikkyu was famous for his indulgence in drinking and sexual interests: he always visited brothels and even in his latter days he had a blind beautiful performer named Shinjisha (森待者) as his lover. Ikkyu also loved boys as the poem above says. (By the way, homosexuality was very common among monks at his time.)
Let me quote a poem on his lover Shinjisha (there are many!):
Prayer for thanking Shinjisha for her great favor
Trees weaken, leaves fall, and spring comes again
Lengthening green, breeding flowers, old promises renewed
Should I forget Shinjisha’s great favor by any chance
I would remain a dumb beast for endless time
In Buddhism the most significant is to leave your desires. However, many Zen and other sect masters point out that the desire to leave your desires is the biggest of all. I am not sure that Ikkyu’s indulgence in worldly interests led him to real enlightenment, but his poems certainly have the power to free our mind.
It is said that his dying word was “I don’t want to die (死にとうない).
Of Related Interest:
Cities of Green Leaves 青葉の都市 – Ginko no Kukai
The Hojoki – Visions of a Torn World
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society